First-Time Home Buyer Down Payment Strategies

Low-down-payment loans, assistance programs or gifts can help first-time home buyers clear the down payment hurdle.

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Socking away a pile of money for a down payment on your first home is easier said than done. First-time home buyers often combine saving for a down payment with other financial strategies. The best one will help you clear the down payment hurdle without jeopardizing your finances in the long run.

Here are some options that first-time home buyers use to come up with a down payment. Not all of them will be right for you, so consider the benefits and drawbacks carefully.

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Traditionally, lenders have preferred 20% down, but many low-down-payment options are available, especially to first-time buyers:

A smaller down payment requirement may enable you to buy a home and start building equity sooner.

The drawbacks: Making a small down payment can trigger extra expenses. , which protects lenders against loans that default, is required on all FHA loans and on conventional loans with down payments less than 20%. VA loans have a funding fee, which can be rolled into your monthly loan payment. A lower down payment usually means you’ll pay a higher interest rate.

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Many states have programs, implemented by government agencies, nonprofits, foundations and even employers. The assistance usually comes in the form of grants or zero-interest, forgivable loans. The programs can have a geographic focus as wide as the nation or as narrow as a city. There are also hyperlocal initiatives targeted as tightly as neighborhoods and even house by house.

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Often, it’s a matter of matching a property to a program, based on a home’s location and price, says Rob Chrane, CEO of Atlanta-based DownPaymentResource.com.

“There are some myths and misperceptions around this,” Chrane says. “Sometimes people think, ‘Oh, this is only for really low-cost housing, in targeted census tracts, distressed neighborhoods … and very low-income households. It’s much more widely available than that.”

Down payment assistance is often combined with favorable mortgage interest rates or tax breaks. Applicants may be required to take , which help prepare them for successful homeownership.

The drawbacks: Programs usually set a maximum sale price and some have income limits, so not all home buyers will qualify. Still, it’s worth checking out programs in your state.

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It’s not uncommon for first-time home buyers to get help from family members. Of all home buyers ages 28 and younger (many of whom are likely first-time buyers), 28% used a gift from a relative or friend to make a down payment, according to a 2019 report from the National Association of Realtors. Of all buyers ages 29 to 38, 21% used a gift.

are acceptable to lenders. But applying a gift toward a down payment involves more than depositing a check.

Garrett Clayton, CEO of AmCap Mortgage in Houston, says that receiving a gift toward a down payment takes a “full circle” of documentation to satisfy a mortgage lender’s requirements. The donors will have to verify in writing not only that they made the gift, but that they also have the financial ability to make such a donation. That will require them to provide bank statements as proof, along with a letter confirming that the donation is a gift and not a loan.

“From a lender perspective, if it is something that will be required to be paid back, then we would need to take those terms of repayment into the calculation of the borrower’s (debt-to-income) ratio, to make sure they still qualify,” Clayton says.

The drawbacks: Using a gift to supplement savings can help first-time home buyers clear the down payment threshold. But buyers who have to rely exclusively on gifts from family members may be unprepared for the .

“We see that borrowers that have none of their own money in the transaction are way more likely to default on loans,” Clayton says. “I would much rather do a loan to a 600 FICO client that has 100% of their own down payment, versus a 780 client that is getting 100% (of their down payment as a) gift.”

Sites like FeatherTheNest.com and HomeFundIt.com let you build an online profile and raise money for a down payment.

FeatherTheNest works like a gift registry where contributions to your down payment (or other home needs) can be funneled into a linked bank account. The service seems particularly suited for engaged couples and newlyweds.

CMG Financial, a mortgage-banking firm, provides the HomeFundIt service. To use HomeFundIt, you have to get prequalified for a mortgage from CMG Financial first. Then you can use its crowdfunding tool to raise money for a down payment. You also have an opportunity for a $1,500 closing costs grant with free home buyer education.

The drawbacks: Watch out for fees or obligations when using a crowdfunding strategy. The transaction and credit card processing fees for FeatherTheNest total 7.9% plus 30 cents on each donation. HomeFundIt doesn’t charge fees, but you can't shop around for a mortgage lender; you must use CMG Financial.

Some first-time home buyers tap retirement savings for a down payment, but this option should be approached with caution.

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The rules and consequences for using retirement money for a down payment before age 59½ vary by the type of account:

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The drawbacks: Taking money out of retirement savings early can set you back on long-term savings and make it hard to catch up. Plus, you miss out on tax-free growth on any of the money you withdraw. Financial planners generally don’t recommend this strategy because most people are already behind on retirement saving.

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